Alex Crowton and Bobby Dass’s chronicle of the life, career and untimely demise of Sparklehorse leader Mark Linkous THE SAD AND BEAUTIFUL WORLD OF SPARKLEHORSE pays faithful tribute to a bright talent responsible for an oeuvre which has rightly achieved cult status. Through six studio albums Linkous’s band melded psychedelia, country and punk to produce a body of work the depth of which is only matched by its originality. The film sits amongst an intriguing programme put together for Picturehouse’s annual Doc n Roll festival. Sparklehorse fan and Gintis frontman Carl Roberts spoke to the directors about their experience putting together a film which told the story of a genius of such rare creativity.
So first of all, I for one am so glad that you made this film, as I’m a huge Sparklehorse fan. Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to make this film? And also when did you start to work on this film? There is some interview footage with Mark Linkous that suggests it was started before he died?
Alex Crowton: Bobby and I studied together many moons ago, we were very much into the same music and switched each other on to various different bands and artists that we liked. Bobby introduced me to Sparklehorse and it felt like a homecoming. I really liked Lambchop and Mercury Rev and the like but when I first heard Sparklehorse I was blown away. Step forward 7 or 8 years and I had really got into the idea of making music docs, we noticed that Mark (Linkous) was playing at The Carling Academy in Birmingham (July 2007) and we made contact with him and proposed creating a promo for the album: Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly of a Mountain. Mark was into the idea and we shot an interview with him backstage at that gig. That interview footage had a life of its own as a promo film but also became one of the key foundations to this film. I guess the kindling for this film was that interview and our usual love of his music, but the feature project began when I called Bobby to tell him the news of Mark’s death – it was almost unspoken; just understood that we would start work on a documentary about Mark and his music.
Obviously there is some delicate subject matter to deal with in the film: death, mental health, physical disability etc. How supportive were the family and friends of Mark Linkous in the making of the film?
Bobby Dass: We really tried to navigate those issues in a very sensitive way and were determined that the film shouldn’t fall into tabloid journalism. We really tried to focus on the positive aspects of Mark’s life and music, which I’ve always found uplifting, humorous and full of warmth. Early on we were in contact with Mark’s blood relatives and his mum and brother really encouraged us to keep persevering with making the film. There was a great deal of good will from everyone who knew and loved Mark. Everyone we interviewed did so out of the love for Mark and wishing to see him being remembered for the good man and creative genius that he was. Mark was going through a messy divorce at the time of his death so one or two people close to him may have been wary of us but I don’t think we’ve cast anyone in a negative light at all.
The feel of the film is very fitting with the grainy pastiche’s of old footage montages at points, was the intention of the film to have the feel of a Sparklehorse record?
AC: Very much so, when you live and work with a project of this nature for as long as we did, the music, the archive and the man begin to tell you how to work and how to construct all of the pieces. We gathered interviews, archive, created visual sequences and shot ‘B’ Roll. Once we had all of that material I guess we worked in quite a hand-crafted fashion; almost like a painter might work. Throughout the whole process we tried to allow Mark’s work to come to the surface. The aesthetic of the film is wholly informed by the music of Sparklehorse we really wanted the audience to be immersed in that world and really understand the man and the music in a visceral sense.
Can you give me some information about the narration of the film? Who did this? was this something that came at the end after collecting a lot of interview footage?
BD: Mark lived up in the beautiful Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina in the latter part of his life. One ‘neighbour’ – separated by a few mountains – that became close friends with him was Angela Faye Martin. Angela is a great artist in her own right and Mark was so impressed by her that he decided to produce her first album. Angela, her husband Brett and Mark became very close buddies; artists living in rural America. Once we embarked on making the film, Alex sought out Angela and they became pen pals. We had begun the editing process and were looking at different people to do the voice-over. We discussed some high profile names but no one seemed a good fit. We talked about Angela writing the narration as she knew Mark really well. It was a stroke of good luck for us that she agreed to do it. Her words are so poetic and authentic; her voice-over really elevates the film.
There are some notable talking heads – Jason Lytle from (Granddaddy), Jonathan Donahue (Mercury Rev), Adrian Utley (Portishead) how easy was it for you to get interviews with these people, what made you decide to target them? and is there anyone that you wanted to get but couldn’t for whatever reason?
AC: For Mark, Jason (Lytle) was someone who had pulled it together, Mark was a huge advocate of Jason and his music and felt he was the walking, talking incarnation of someone who had overcome difficulties and found solace through art. They were great friends and supporters of each other and through our research we knew we had to speak with Jason, it was a very similar story with Jonathan and Adrian. I had worked with Mercury Rev on a previous project and also knew that that Mercury Rev and Sparklehorse and gigged together (most notably on a tribute to Nico performance). Adrian, Jonathan and Jason were all utterly in awe of Mark as an artist and were very keen to share with us both personal and professional recollections of working with him. Those artists in particular were really key for us to shoot – not only because of their shared experiences but also because of the weight it brings to the claim that Mark was totally heralded by his peers and sometimes overlooked by wider audiences. We were really keen to meet and shoot interviews with both David Lynch and Brian Burton (Dangermouse) and it very nearly happened with David, but timing and logistics failed us. It’s always tough when you are working with such small budgets.
One big surprise for me, was the inclusion of (tabloid journalist, broadcaster) Matthew Wright in the film. How did you know he was a Sparklehorse fan?
BD: Well I’m glad people are surprised when Matthew pops up in the film! I think it’s a very Sparklehorse thing to do to get unexpected people to be interviewed for the film. I remember watching an episode of Matthew’s TV show and him talking about music. He mentioned he was a massive Sparklehorse fan and that lodged in my memory – I didn’t hear many people in the mainstream arena talking much about Mark and his music. Matthew also interviewed Mark for BBC Radio and the two hit it off. When we were looking at a journalistic voice to be interviewed; we reached out to Matthew and he agreed. Matthew is a very nice, thoughtful man and after the interview he always kept in touch and kept a watchful eye on the film’s progress.
How difficult was the soundtracking of the film given that there are so many absolutely brilliant songs to choose from?
AC: It was tough and at the same time easy. There are a wealth of utterly amazing Sparklehorse tracks all of which we would have liked to have woven in, or at least given a nod to. Thankfully Bobby is an utterly amazing editor, his radar for knowing how to work with music is better than anyone I have ever had the pleasure of working with, thus his approach coupled with some amazing tweaks and edits meant that we actually used more music than we thought we could.It was hard to pick the tracks, but when you work with music that you love, it makes the job easy.
One moment in the film that really stuck out for me and gave me shivers, was when John Parish was talking about the genesis and recording of Gold Day, and he seemed to also be quite moved talking about it. Were there a lot of moments during the interview process that gave you a lump in your throat?
BD: John Parish is such a lovely, honest person, his interview is a real joy to see and hear. All the interviewees were exceptional and gave us tremendous insight. At the end of Jonathon Donahue’s interviews I really had to fight hard to hold back some tears. He was so poetic and his words were deeply moving. It was similar with David Lowery and Gemma Hayes too, at times during the interview you could feel how much they’d been affected by just knowing Mark and by the tragic way he left this world.
Did visiting the Static King recording studio and the rural open spaces in the southern states of America give you a sense of where the music was coming from?
AC: The Southern United States are beautiful – For me that is the real America. Visiting North Carolina, Static King, and Virginia were like climbing inside both Mark’s world and also lots of great popular culture of the 20th Century. I think for both Bobby and I, the whirlwind trip we made to the States in the Summer of 2014 was one of the most enriching experiences each of us had ever had. The rural South is misunderstood, it has heritage, secrets and strange wonder in equal measure. I don’t think I will ever forget being stood outside Static King having Angela (Faye-Martin) explain to us Marks studio, collection of weird found jewellery and his classic Mercedes Benz’s and Moto Guzzi’s – you could feel it.
I was always under the impression that Mark Linkous really loved motorbikes and would be a bit of a petrol-head in his local town/village, yet go missing for 6 months of the year to tour/be a musician and that his motorcycle friends were unaware of what he did for a living. Any truth in this?
BD: I’m not sure that people were completely unaware of what Mark did for a living but he was such a humble man he definitely downplayed his talents. He and his brother Matt Linkous were certainly petrol heads though and hung out with a lot of biker gangs in their youth. I think that was one of the hardest parts of Mark becoming confined to a wheelchair – losing the sense of freedom he got from riding. When he was able to partially walk again, one of the first things he did was to ask Matt to help him to ride again.
I loved the footage of a young ‘Freddie Linkous’ and his punk band The Dancing Hoods and the interview of him talking about aiming to have enough money to put the central heating on next year, and the reporters saying his expectations were probably too high – I was grinning from ear-to-ear at this footage. How on earth did you get hold of that?
BD: There is a merry band of very loyal and committed Sparklehorse fanatics who are exemplars within the curatorship of Sparklehorse heritage and genealogy. I think that material found its way to us via the rather marvellous sparkleon.org, which is curated by John Ryder and Daniel Potter, both of whom have been really great in there help and support.
Is this the first feature length film that you have done? Is there any other films in the pipeline?
AC: We have made other shorts both individually and together but this is our first feature. We will definitely be making another feature doc and have several projects that we are currently propagating. All I can say is that when they happen, they will be good – “We are not the best, but we sure are slow”.
The Sad and Beautiful World Of Sparklehorse followed by a Q&A with the directors takes place at Picturehouse at FACT on Sunday 2nd April at 2pm as part of Doc n Roll Film Festival.